Paul Magrs on writing fiction

Posted by Paul Magrs

If you’re going to write you must get used to starting again. I mean this on the small scale and the big scale.

You must start again with every project. You get to the end, start again. Edit and rewrite. Put it away. Take it out again. Are you happy yet?

On a bigger scale, you must start again with every new project. You must build it up from the ground again, whether it’s a standalone novel or one in a series. I’ve written a number of series now, in different genres, and each new volume I’ve approached as if it were the first. Each new book must be a doorway to new readers.

Then, on a wider scale again, you must be prepared to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and start again from scratch throughout your career. You have to be resilient and resourceful. If you want to go on as a writer, then you must be prepared to reinvent yourself repeatedly and move on.

I’ve been dumped by several publishers over the years. I’ve been sacked by editors and passed on by agents. These things happen. That’s just how it is.

And I’ve always been good! Never in trouble at school. Always worked hard and played by the rules as an adult. I got qualifications, I wrote, I revised and I invented stories and styles that were true to me and like no one else’s. I always did my very best. Having found my own, unique voice I practiced it and sang for all I was worth. I sang my head off. I delivered books on time, did the edits, took the advice, rewrote, did everything I was told, performed at readings, festivals, taught workshops, smiled and signed and answered questions and did everything that was expected of me.
Even so. Being good has nothing to do with it. Being lucky is something else. That’s just how it is.

And so you must reinvent yourself, if you want to stay in the game.

I was lucky, at times. I published my first books when I was in my mid-twenties, with the highly-respectable literary imprint, Chatto and Windus. I got in there simply by writing in and asking if they’d like to read my work. I was delighted to find they were interested in novels about working class council estates in the North East. And what’s more, they were interested in magical realist goings-on in those places and amongst those characters. And they really were! For a year or two, anyway. But the books didn’t sell, and I was dumped.

I then wrote Doctor Who novels for BBC Books in the ‘Wilderness Years’ before the show was brought back and became hugely successful. I wrote wayward, experimental, crazy Doctor Who novels and, when the show returned I was told I’d have to calm it all down if I wanted to carry on writing for them.

Be more conventional.

That’s just how it is.

That was the reinvention wished upon me by various editors and agents over the years, especially as I went through my thirties and they despaired because I still hadn’t ‘broken through’ (as they call it) to that commercial success they all wanted.

Why couldn’t I write like other people did, they wanted to know? Why couldn’t I have a success of my own by modeling my work on somebody else’s?

I just couldn’t. I didn’t even know where to start. Why would I want to change anything in order to be like someone else? I’d tried so hard to be me. Not being me was the only kind of reinvention I couldn’t manage.

When I started writing children’s fiction I put gay kids in because I’d been a gay kid and no one told me you weren’t supposed to. (I gather this has changed somewhat now?)

When I wrote science-fiction I made my heroine a drunken old woman who swore and smoked and drove a double-decker bus and who lived in Darlington, and I put in more jokes than science.

When I wrote gothic mystery I made my heroine the Bride of Frankenstein and she was like your favourite aunty, but hopeless at solving mysteries. She and fellow sleuth Effie usually ended up making situations much worse and the books followed none of the rules of the gothic, nor mystery, and were sold in the science fiction section of bookshops, for some reason.

When I wrote a memoir I wrote it from the point of view of our recently deceased cat.

When I wrote a book of literary criticism I did it about the Doctor Who Annuals: books which even Doctor Who fans think are unreadable.

That’s just how it was.

With each new reinvention and change of genre and style I’ve only ever become more myself. These books and stories I write have only become more like me. I always thought that was the point. And though my books appear to belong in different genres and though they seem to be firing off in all sorts of directions, I see them as belonging to the same world, all interconnected.

And that’s what the job has been about for me, through these twenty odd years and thirty odd books. It’s about creating a body of work unlike anyone else’s. It’s about changing direction not so that you pander to someone else’s duff expectations or silly guessing games about where the market is going (those kind of predictions never work anyway.)

I’ve changed direction in order to remain true to what my writing is all about. My books are always about picking yourself up and starting again. Reinvention has always been one of my most abiding themes.

I go my own way.

That’s just how it is.

Paul Magrs was born in 1969 in the North East of England. He has written numerous novels and short stories for adults, teens, children and Doctor Who fans. He teaches Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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My top tips for writing fiction

1. Begin a writing session with ten minutes of writing any old garbage. It’s just to clear your throat.

2. Write in longhand first, in notebooks. Valuable editing goes on when you transcribe onto computer.

3. Only ever set out to write for a finite time. An hour or twenty minutes. Or a target of a thousand words, or 500. Don’t push it too hard. We’re in for the long haul, when we write novels.

4. Email your work to yourself at the end of the day. It’s a useful back up, also it means you can read it back later on your phone or whatever device you carry about with you. Rereading your work with fresh eyes is vital.

5. Don’t read other people’s work forever thinking: ‘I’m better / as good / not as good as this writer.’ They couldn’t write your stories, and you can’t write theirs. You can only write your own.